‘Green Food’ for a Green Economy

Greater investment is needed in agricultural research, enhanced knowledge exchange is required between different stakeholders in supply chains and detailed discussion must take place regarding how to reduce consumption and waste. These are some of the headline conclusions from the Government’s Green Food Project, which reported on Tuesday this week. The interim report marks a milestone in the project, a collaboration between retailers, food producers, government and the environmental sector.

The report is clear in setting out the challenges facing the food and farming sector in England over the decades to 2050. Although in theory the globe currently produces enough food for everyone to eat, complex social, socioeconomic and political factors mean that there are over a billion people who go hungry, alongside a billion more who are obese. A report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), referenced in the project’s conclusions, estimates that if current patterns of food consumption persist, by 2050, 60% more food will need to be produced globally.

So how can more food be produced, to meet the needs of a growing (and in some cases increasingly affluent) population, but in a way that does not degrade the environment? The goal of the Green Food Project was to reconcile these challenges, assessing how we can both improve the environment and increase food production in England, ensuring that production does not breach environmental limits.

Five sub-groups were established by the project, looking at wheat crops, the dairy sector, bread production, the production of a curry dish (chosen due to its popularity and also the current need to import many of the ingredients from overseas) and across different geographical areas. The sub-groups assessed the supply chains in relation to these food products and in many cases the potential to develop new technologies to improve productivity. In doing so the steering group aimed to find ‘win wins’ – ways to generate improvements in both food production and environmental condition – where possible. However in many cases such outcomes were not possible and instead the groups were required to considered trade-offs between environmental enhancement and increased food production.

One constraint to assessing whether trade-offs are possible and the level of impact that they may have on the environment is the relative lack of indicators with respect to environmental condition. Whilst it may be possible to assess that an intervention has led to increases in yield, there is no single indicator that explains how the environment as a whole has benefited or suffered as a result. An important point made in the report is that it is difficult to advise food producers on how they should reconcile the changes in indicators in relation to climate, water and biodiversity and so make decisions on this basis. The Green Food Project’s conclusions are feeding in to the follow-up to the UK National Ecosystem Assessment (‘NEA 2’), aiming to create a better understanding of monetised and non-monetised values for ecosystem services. The tools offered by the NEA 2 should assist land managers in making decisions based on these values.

Critically, the report acknowledges that even if greater research leads to an enhanced understanding of the location and quality of ecosystem services, alongside tools to value these, capturing the values of ecosystem services in the supply chain is extremely challenging. The development of markets for ecosystem services, as is slowly getting underway in the UK through the development of schemes for carbon and water, is not always possible. Even when possible it may not be practical to internalise these values in the food system. The report highlights therefore that ‘a cost effective approach to capturing the value of ecosystem services…must include a strong regulatory baseline’ and that ‘there is likely to continue to be a need for public funding to secure public goods for which it is not currently practical to develop a market’.

The major source of public funding identified by the Green Food Project is the ‘Rural Development Programme’ – Pillar 2 of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The report acknowledges this as ‘overwhelmingly the largest public fund over which we have discretion to influence improved land management and food production’. However, negotiations around the reforms to the CAP, to conclude next year, are currently ongoing and it is by no means certain that Pillar 2 will be able to provide the level of funding that many initiatives aimed at environmental enhancement currently rely on. Speakers at the recent Natural Environment 2012 meeting were clear about the problems that CAP reform and a smaller amount of funding for environmental protection could deliver.

Alongside an investment in ecosystem services research, the Green Food Project calls for increased investment in agricultural research, in particular in applied agri-food studies, in soil science and socio-economic research. Capitalising on this investment in research, development and innovation, greater efforts must be made to translate the results of research into practical interventions that can be used by farmers. The project group call for better training for agricultural advisers to facilitate this communication.

There is also a need for greater knowledge exchange between the best performers, in terms of agricultural production and environmental sustainability, and those performing less well. Demonstration farms can provide a useful tool in this context, as can the network of advisers mentioned earlier.

Perhaps one of the most interesting points raised by the conclusions to this first phase of the Green Food Project was the need to move away from a ‘one size fits all’ policy to managing the agricultural environment, to more tailored solutions: ‘it makes sense to use the most valuable land (in either economic or environmental terms) for what it is best suited to, working within environmental limits’. They call for a landscape-scale approach and suggest that ‘sustainably increasing production at the national scale requires a broader assessment of where we have the capacity to increase production without breaching environmental and legal limits’.

Although the group makes it clear that they do not wish to be prescriptive in directing how individual land-owners can manage their land, moving to a landscape scale (and even an England-scale approach as the report appears to advocate) will necessarily involve quite significant changes in practice on individual farms that may meet with some resistance. Incentives for farmers, for example through Payments for Ecosystem Services or through creating a price premium for ‘sustainable’ products, will be important, as will clear direction, policy and regulation from Government. Fundamental to the success of ‘green food’ policies will be educating consumers so that they can make informed choices about the produce that they buy, ensuring that a demand is created which feeds back into agricultural practice.